Former MP Peter Dunne argues National needs to either embrace New Zealand First or reject it, and quickly. The current prevarication is confusing voters and is ultimately dangerous.
The great 19th century British politician Benjamin Disraeli is said to have observed that "a successful politician learns very early on that when he sees a back he must either slap it, or stab it - his only mistake is to ignore it."
The National Party could well consider that advice as it ponders its ongoing relationship with New Zealand First. At various times, over the years, National has attempted to either slap or stab the New Zealand First back without much enduring success. Its present strategy seems to lie somewhere between the two, bolstered by the fond belief that both parties will be able to talk with each other "if they need to". It is, however, unlikely to be any more successful than previous strategies.
National's problem is that while it vacillates on the New Zealand First question it gives its more right-wing rural and provincial malcontents something to hang on to - they can vote for New Zealand First (because Winston Peters used to be National after all) if disenchanted in the naive hope that both could set aside their differences and form a "real" centre-right government after an election.
The problem is that has been the outcome in only one of the eight MMP elections so far, and even that arrangement lasted only twenty months from 1996 to 1998.
It is no coincidence that New Zealand First does worst when the major parties (National in particular) make it clear they will not deal with them. New Zealand First's pariah status after the 1996-98 Coalition collapse and the party's subsequent internal meltdown cost it dearly in 1999, leaving it clinging to a tiny 63 vote majority in Tauranga to avoid electoral oblivion, and John Key's categorical ruling out any working arrangements with New Zealand First saw the party tossed out of Parliament altogether in 2008.
Contrast that decisiveness with the last election where National tried to have the proverbial bob each way. Bill English made it clear he "would prefer not to" to work with New Zealand First, while leaving the door slightly ajar. Then there were the hamfisted revelations about Peters' superannuation overpayments, and an appeal late in the campaign "to cut out the middle man" and vote National.
All of which left voters somewhat confused as to National's real view, leaving the sense that they would probably do a deal with New Zealand First if they had to, which was just enough for some National-leaning voters to feel they were doing their party a favour by giving their party vote to New Zealand First. None of them had seriously factored in in any way Peters' notorious commitment to political utu, which opened the door for a coalition deal with Labour.
The evidence from the recent National Party conference is that the party is still having problems coming to grips with this issue. The jibes from party president Peter Goodfellow about Peters' personal habits drew the predictable subsequent response and warning from Peters.
At the same time, party leader Simon Bridges was still ducking and weaving about whether National and New Zealand First could work together in the future. And then there was former Australian Prime Minister John Howard's intervention about the unfairness of the election result.
Make up your mind
These contradictory messages have reinforced the confusion in the public's mind, which will simply sanction rural, provincial and more conservative National voters, who feel in any way disillusioned about the party's current performance and direction, to trundle off to New Zealand First.
National really needs to make up its mind clearly and soon about how it is going to treat the New Zealand First back. If it is going to slap it, then it needs to start developing policies in previously common areas like law and order, defence and provincial economic development where it can get alongside New Zealand First and start to make progress together, so the public could see a viable government emerging if the numbers were to make that possible at some point.
If, on the other hand, National's intent is to stab the New Zealand First back, then it has to do so equally soon and clearly. It needs to make an unambiguous statement, akin to John Key's 2008 declaration, that National will not work with New Zealand First under any circumstances, even if it means foregoing government, and will be working to see them tossed out of Parliament altogether at the next election.
Then it has to go all out to do so. Like 2008, that would make it brutally clear to lukewarm supporters seeking an insurance policy that a vote for New Zealand First would most definitely not be a vote towards installing a National-led government. The absolute worst thing National can do is to ignore the New Zealand first back by continuing the present "on the one hand, on the other" approach.
Of course, all this overlooks National's lack of potential partners, since the demise of the Maori Party and UnitedFuture and continued voter indifference to ACT. Unless a viable new option is to emerge (perhaps slightly to National's left to allow it to push more into New Zealand First's ground), National's focus will have to be on going it alone, which will be difficult.
However, it is already the largest party in Parliament by a considerable margin, and if New Zealand First is eliminated could easily expect to strengthen its position.
Whatever, National needs to be bold, decisive and clear. The longer it prevaricates on the New Zealand First issue, the more it risks its future prospects. Taking a leaf out of Disraeli's book could be no bad thing.